How to Survive A Master’s Degree

Timothy, one of our Student Ambassadors, is a witty and clever writer. You will truly be entertained reading his blogs, but pay attention because he has wise words to offer. In this blog, Timothy gives you all that you need to know when it comes to surviving a Masters.

Commonly held beliefs vary when it comes to their footing on the sphere of truth. Some may appear to have firm footing, only to be in danger of blowing away at the slightest gusty examination. Take for example the oft-quoted belief that the only man-made object visible from space is the Great Wall of China. Well, if by visible from space you mean “from low Earth orbit instead of on the moon, and with the right set of weather conditions, and with a digital camera aiding the naked eye” then sure, quibbles aside, that statement could pass muster.

In comparison, the belief that a master’s degree is incredibly intensive and challenging comes with much firmer footing. As a student doing a master’s degree here at the University of Limerick, I know I might be slightly biased in thinking that there is more than a modicum of truth underlying that belief.

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A common refrain I heard in my first week was how my master’s would age me by ten years in the span of one.

Charming.
But whoever was the first to spout that line was dead wrong.

I have already aged ten years in the first three and a half months! At this rate, by the time I complete my master’s, I should be eligible for senior citizen discounts, based on looks alone.

The fact that I am writing this blog post means that I have survived my first semester as a master’s student here at UL. Gone is the slack-jawed, bright-eyed, and bushy-tailed me of three and half months ago.  In his place stands a grizzled veteran (eye-patch optional), cutting a placid and impassive figure against the whirlwind of chaos going about its business in the background.

Having made it through my first semester in one piece, I thought it might be useful to relay advice I have picked up along the way, as bits and pieces of gnomic wisdom, delivered as a rousing paean to the act of surviving one’s master degree.

So, here goes nothing:

#1 Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

Seriously. Don’t. If you’re struggling and floundering and it feels like you’re being swept away by the undertow, you should strive to seek help, either from a lecturer, a member of your cohort, a friend, your parents, or someone you know who might have your best interest at heart. It would be counter-productive to plug away at your assignments or projects if you’re unsure of what you’re doing – and obviously, not very good for keeping your stress levels in check.

Sure enough, there’s a line between being too quick to ask for help before giving it a good go and asking for help when you’re stuck, but that line is wide enough to accommodate two SUVs parked next to each other. Taking a fair crack at it but asking for help when you’re well and truly stumped saves you a lot of stress and sleepless nights.

A university is an institution of learning, after all. And sleep is good and delicious.

#2 Don’t Compare Yourself Negatively to Others

While it’s normal to want to compare ourselves to others, to see whether we’re on the right track, the trouble comes when we berate ourselves for not, in our estimation, having made as much progress or scoring as high as our peers.

The thing about a master’s program is that, if you imagine your cohort as a flock of birds, each member of the group often sports a completely different plumage to your own. Chances are all of you will be bringing something unique to the table. Different cultural backgrounds, coming from different disciplines, with different life experiences. Some of your peers might have taken a path to your course that puts them in a better position to more quickly pick up what your lecturers deliver in class, and their previously acquired skills may give them a significant head start in assignments and projects.

Given that no two of you took the exact same path to get to where you are at this point in time, it would be an exercise in futility to try and make any meaningful comparison between the progress made by any two members of the group.

Take myself for example. I’m doing a Master’s in Interaction and Experience Design, a postgraduate course offered by the Department of Computer Science and Information Systems. It’s a course for those who are interested in “combining technological competence with design/artistic endeavor.”

I’m zero for two. I have neither a background in computer science nor one in design or the arts. And that means I often have to put in more time and effort in learning things my peers might already be intimately familiar with, in acquiring skills that are already sitting comfortably in their arsenal of skillsets. Remember the first piece of advice, about not being afraid to ask for help? Yes. I do a lot of that as well.

Sure, it can all be quite challenging, but hey, them’s the break, right? Unlike on the running track at the Olympics, we don’t all begin the race at the same spot.

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Needless to say, if I were inclined to compare myself, like-for-like, with my peers, I would no doubt end up being sucked deep down into a quagmire of depression.

The best advice I have is to leverage your own background, life and work experiences, and existing skillset. Never forget that you too are bringing something unique to the table.  

#3 Pace yourself

Those who can strategize and formulate plans, timetables, and set a multitude of goals for themselves on the first day of the semester typically don’t have a problem with this.

The rest of us tend to take it easy in the first few weeks, but often end up hunkering down and getting serious somewhere in the middle of the semester. By the end, we’ve pulled off so many herculean, go all-out attempts at laser-like focus and maybe even an all-nighter or two, that we’re more than a little worn out and in dire need of some much needed r & r (rest and relaxation).

Guess which one is harder on the mind and body?

Pacing yourself from day one is a sensible strategy to adopt. It affords and prioritizes consistency, which in turns leads to less of a need for herculean heroics later in the semester. This helps reduce stress levels and makes everything more manageable, which is a great thing for your health and sanity.

And it allows you to not feel as guilty when you’re unwinding with a bit of Netflix. Which leads to the next point…

#4 Take regular breaks

One could argue that we’d get a lot more stuff done if we could only focus our energies and not spent time on things that are not pertinent to our studies. Like watching Netflix. Or going out for a bite or a drink with friends and family. Or reading that literary masterpiece you’ve been meaning to sink your teeth into, instead of say, your weekly mandatory reading list.

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On paper, it sounds logical. Spent less time on these things, spent more time on these other things. Subtract and add, add and subtract.

But we don’t live our lives on paper, do we? Nor are we robots, automatons built from cogs and gears and belts, able to plug away at something for hours on end at maximum efficiency.

Although I do not doubt that humans are capable of amazing feats of focus and concentration, it would be a push to say that we could sustain such intensity for an entire semester. That’s where point three, pacing yourself, comes in handy.

And the corollary of that is taking regular breaks. We might all unwind in different ways, but the point is that we all need to unwind. After a long day in class, hours in the lab, the meetings to work out the kinks or brainstorm this or that for your group assignments, you’ll need to take a breather or two and just kick back for some me-time. Studies – and experience and common sense – have already shown that there’s only so much you can take before your mind turns to sludge and you become unproductive due to the effects of mental fatigue.

Given that our flagging energy levels need to be recharged once they get depleted, it makes perfect sense for us to take occasional breaks from our studies and use that downtime to get some much-needed rest and relaxation. It’s a way to keep productivity levels up and ensure that you don’t burn out. Watch Netflix. Go to the Sports Arena for a workout or swim. Listen to music. Have a meal with family and friends. Read a book. Anything.

Here, take a leaf out of my classmate’s book:

Pic 1: Here’s Stephen, taking a little break on one of the benches in front of the Schumann Building. He’s using his scarf as a blindfold because he’s been staring at a screen for six hours and his eyes need a break of their own. Stephen has a knack for coming up with many ingenious ways to chill and relax.

Pic 2: Here’s Stephen again. This time, he’s taking a long and languid walk near his home after a hard day’s work at school. No, he’s not doing tai chi, powering up a Dragon Ball Kamehameha, or living out his Matrix fantasies, in case you were wondering. Look closely. That’s a phone in his hands.

These four nuggets of prevailing wisdom should stand you in good stead when it comes to surviving your master’s degree. Like a beloved, closely guarded family recipe, they have been tried and tested over the years and brought smiles and satisfaction to many.

Well, my break time’s over.
Time to get back to studying.
I hope this has been useful to you.
If not, I hope it’s at least been mildly entertaining.

~ Timothy

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